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Some Cities Are Falling Behind in Preparing For the Effects of Climate Change

Less than one in five cities around the globe is taking action. Congratulations New York, sorry Philadelphia.

Stephen Buranyi

Stephen Buranyi

This week, the Insurance Bureau of Canada said that the Fort McMurray wildfire, which devastated Alberta in May, was the most expensive disaster in Canadian history—costing insurers CDN $3.58 billion.

As the planet continues to warm, more natural disasters like this will come. But a new study shows that only a handful of cities around the world are actually taking concrete action to prepare for its effects, which will range from increased flooding and wildfires, to heatwaves and extreme drought.

Researchers at McGill University in Montreal examined reports and policy documents from more than 400 cities with over a million residents each, a sample that includes 1.3 billion people, or about a fifth of the world's population. (Their study included nearby cities like Toronto and Boston, as well as a nearly a hundred of them in China.) They found that only 15 percent reported taking any action to reduce their vulnerability to climate-related disasters, and only 18 percent are planning to take such actions in the future.

In fact, the disparity between cities' preparation plans is so great that some are completely pulling away from the pack, and leaving others behind. New York was excluded from some of the group's data analysis because its huge number of adaptation projects were skewing the results. The city's 234 initiatives account for over a quarter of the total for the whole world.

"This absolutely should be a more urgent concern. You have less than 20 percent of the cities we looked at planning to adapt to climate change, but you can already see the ways they are being affected. From constant flooding and extreme heat in Dhaka, to flooding in Paris earlier this year affecting cultural heritage sites, to closed subway lines in New York from Hurricane Sandy, impacts from extreme weather don't discriminate which cities they hit," said Malcolm Araos, a researcher at McGill's Climate Change Adaptation Research Group, and the lead author of the study.

While countries have agreed to limit global warming to below two degrees as part of the Paris Agreement, even if that goal is met—which many experts consider unlikely—we are headed for a different and more dangerous world. 2015 was by far the hottest year on record (some suggest this year will be even hotter), and natural disasters are predicted to increase significantly even with only a few degrees of change. A recent World Bank report estimates that, by 2050, more than a billion people will be at risk from climate related disasters, and its authors urge cities to improve their planning before it's too late.

Araos says that adapting to climate change has only recently become a concern for many areas. "Local and national governments have a lot on their hands. Cities have a lot of different competing priorities, and adaptation doesn't reach the top. But considerations of how climate change will affect your city can be included in planning for transit and real estate development, for example," he said.

He points to efforts like Vancouver's plan to raise the floors of all new houses above predicted future flood levels, or the "floodable parks" being built in the Danish capital of Copenhagen, as examples of simple and effective measures that cities can add to their climate planning.

"Of course, it helps to have the money, and the technical expertise to focus on these issues."

Unsurprisingly, rich countries already have a huge lead. The researchers found that 72 percent of European cities and 62 percent of North American cities reported some adaptation action or planning, while only 8 percent of cities in Asia, 11 percent in Africa, and 13 percent in South America showed similar progress.

This follows a study in Nature Climate Change earlier this year showing that the proportion of money spent on climate adaptation in cities in developed countries was more than double that spent by cities in developing nations, suggesting that even the projects that do exist in those countries have less resources committed to them.

It's a depressing reminder that the nations least responsible for carbon emissions also stand to lose the most. And support for their efforts to adapt so far has been minimal. Negotiators at the 2009 UN climate summit in Copenhagen promised to provide $100 billion in climate adaptation finance for developing countries before 2020, by which time many of the richest cities in the world will have spent more than a decade on their own preparations.

Enormous gaps can exist between cities even within a single country. New York made a conscious choice to lead on adaptation when then-mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a $20 billion dollar climate adaptation program back in 2013, after Sandy.

"We haven't waited for Washington to lead on climate change," he said at the time. The city will break ground next year on the first major project from the plan, a $335 million flood barrier along the East River.

Meanwhile, nearby cities like Philadelphia reported no adaptation projects as of the time of the McGill study, and the city only completed its first report on climate adaptation in 2015.

Araos thinks that while it's good for certain cities to provide an example, a lack of leadership at the national level makes these gaps worse.

"There's the belief that adaptation is local because the effects of climate change are local. There's a huge role for other levels of government too, though. Federal government won't provide flooding maps, but they can provide cities with money and guidelines for what an adaptation project could look like," he said.

In other words, no city is an island. National governments should have an interest in preventing that from happening, before climate change further separates the haves from the have-nots.